ABIDJAN — Social networking sites and online innovation are changing the face of government, activism and business in Ivory Coast and throughout Africa.
They are called the iPad government. Ivory Coast's ministers take notes and send e-mails on their touchscreen tablet computers during weekly cabinet meetings. They share and access documents through an online portal. The government is going paperless.
Ministers are encouraged to blog, Facebook and tweet regularly. Many of them actually do.
Guillaume Soro, currently the president of the National Assembly, is launching his own android/iPhone application. Social media has been key to Soro's rebranding from a rebel leader to a serious politician with aspirations on the presidential palace.
Youth minister Alain Lobognon said it's about reaching citizens by whatever means possible. And, when nearly four out of five of those citizens are under the age of 35, social networking sites are a natural choice.
The population, he says, needs to know the truth about incorrect information. If you are not fast, he says, rumors get going and can do real damage. Ivory Coast doesn't have a dedicated 24/7 news channel. The state media broadcasts at 8 p.m. but by then, it can be too late.
Social media sites, like Twitter, he says, allow the government to react almost instantly to news, rumors or criticism.
Lobognon says he can send as many as 100 tweets a day -- the short 144-character messages posted to Twitter, a kind of global online chat board. He tweets on ministry initiatives but also exchanges with constituents and replies personally to private messages.
It's good leadership, Lobognon says, but it's also good politics.
He says a Facebook or Twitter account is like instantly filling a room with 5,000 people, if you have for example, 5,000 subscribers. Then, multiply that by 10, he says, for all your subscribers who will share or re-tweet your message and you have just reached as many as 50,000 people with the click of a button.
Could social media change the way Africans run for office? Could the internet revolutionize the way Africans govern, find a job or even go to school?
Not yet, but that's the idea, say a group of young Ivorian e-entrepreneurs who get together most Thursday nights at a comedy club in Abidjan.
These young, self-professed techies are the best and brightest of the country's fledgling IT (information technology) sector. They are programmers, strategists, designers. They socialize amid the glow of blue screens as several tap away at their laptops or handheld tablets.
Mohamed Diaby is director of an Abidjan marketing strategy firm, Waleya Hub, which organizes the meet-ups. It also puts together seminars to teach "techies" how to market their ideas and young people how to use the internet.
It's a business, Diaby says, but it's also about creating "useful technology."
Technology, he says, can help Ivory Coast, and Africa, catch up when it comes to healthcare, education and other sectors. It doesn't have all the solutions, he says, but it allows them to go faster, to skip steps along the way. It's not just a race for money, he says. It's a race to development. The next step is getting the coming generation up to speed, he says, and then this will explode.
Many, like Diaby, moved back home to Ivory Coast after training and working abroad, pillars of the so-called African "brain gain."
This group of people, he says, has been around for about four years, but it was the crisis that really united them as a community. The next step is for them to monetize their ideas, to be able to earn a living with their expertise and then ultimately take their creations to the world market.
The crisis he is referring to is the 2010 - 2011 post-election conflict that killed 3,000 people in Ivory Coast. The tragedy proved to be a technological testing ground.
A group of programmers had already set up a site to map what was happening during the election and created the twitter hash tag #CIV2010. Hash tags are a searchable way for people to label their tweets. It, and other Ivorian hash tags, became sources of up-to-the minute information on news and violence.
Blogger and IT consultant, Cryriac Gbogou, says they also created the hash tag #CIVsocial to help people stranded in their homes by the fighting.
He says people could post when they, or someone they knew, needed food or help getting to a hospital. He said they would connect that person with help or supply it themselves. The initiative, he says, saved 82 people and resulted in two successful births done by phone with doctors talking women through the labor and delivery.
The aims of these IT inventors aren't entirely altruistic. They do also need to make money. The challenge now, they say, is how to do that in a country where just a tenth of the population is online and internet scams have made e-commerce near impossible. The country is blacklisted on sites like PayPal. DSL connections at around $60 per month are too expensive for most families.
Innovation must often precede infrastructure, they say. They hope to create the demand that will drive the investment.